I have two items for my write-up today on Greg Mitchell’s book about the 1950 U.S. Senate race in California between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. The book is entitled Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas—-Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950.
1. This first item is about President Harry S Truman’s approach to the issue of alleged subversives in the U.S. Government. Truman sent a letter to an official in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in which Truman complained about the “fuss” about what political groups people belonged to. Truman said: “I’d be willing to bet my right eye that you yourself and I have joined some organization that we wish we hadn’t. It hasn’t hurt me and I don’t think it has hurt you any” (Truman’s words, quoted on page 7). Yet, in response to the growing concern among Americans about Communism in the U.S., and perhaps with an eye on the Presidential election in 1948, Truman instituted a loyalty program for federal employees, which removed those who (after a background check) were concluded to be disloyal to the United States Government.
According to Mitchell on page 85, Truman’s loyalty program had problems. Mitchell says that “Dismissal would not take into account whether the employee was engaged in a sensitive national security job or worked as a clerk in the Agriculture Department” (page 85). Mitchell also states that “Disloyalty was broadly defined”, as it covered espionage and sabotage, but also sympathy for groups that the Attorney General considered to be totalitarian, fascist, Communist, or otherwise subversive. In addition, according to Mitchell, “What constituted suspicious political activity was highly subjective”, and “Advocating civil rights for Negroes often set off alarms” (page 85). Not only did the loyalty program go after federal employees who were concluded to be involved in these sorts of activities, but it also dismissed federal employees with a spouse or a close relative who was “friendly with a Communist front”, as well as federal employees who drank too much or had “sexual indiscretions that left them vulnerable to foreign agents” (Mitchell on page 85). Moreover, “the accused had no right to confront their accusers or even know exactly what the charges were and who made them” (page 85). When only 201 federal employees were dismissed, half of those cases were under appeal (through what kind of due process, I do not know), and no spies were found, there were conservatives who criticized the Truman Administration’s “standards for disloyalty” (page 86).
When Truman no longer had to contend with a Presidential election, however, he opposed certain anti-Communist bills, such as Mundt-Nixon, a bill that I discuss in my post here. Mundt-Nixon would require people in “suspected Communist Party organizations and front groups” to register with the Attorney General “or face severe penalties” (Mitchell on page 109). Truman opposed Mundt-Nixon because he felt that it would threaten labor unions and liberal organizations, but also push the Communists “deeper underground, preventing surveillance and FBI infiltration” (Mitchell on page 109).
2. This second item is about Hollywood and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), though I’ll also talk about an anti-Communist who became a victim of the Red Scare.
Nixon and others on HUAC inquired of Hollywood representatives where the anti-Communist movies were. The thing is, when anti-Communist movies did appear, they ended up being “shoddy” and received a “tepid public response” (Mitchell on page 62). Producer Sam Goldwyn asked how he could make a decent picture, when his best writers were in jail (page 112). The writers were in jail on account of the Red Scare (page 112). This intrigued me because it made me think about whether one can be a conservative and also write a good story. There are conservatives or libertarians who have been renowned for their fiction, such as Taylor Caldwell, Ayn Rand, William F. Buckley, Jr., and others. I suppose that conservatives could write good fiction, as long as the complexity of their characters is not sacrificed to hyper-moralism (though one could argue that there have been decent moralistic works, such as Ayn Rand’s books, episodes of The West Wing, which are liberal, etc.).
A quick tangent on Hollywood: Many would probably expect for Hollywood and the media to go for Douglas in the 1950 Senate race, for were these not prominent elements of the liberal establishment? Actually, that wasn’t exactly accurate. As Mitchell states on page 101, there were prominent Nixon-supporters in Hollywood. Some of these were actors, such as John Wayne, Robert Montgomery, Ginger Rogers, and Adolphe Menjou. Others were higher-ups, such as Walt Disney and MGM’s chief attorney Mendel Silberberg. And there were plenty of prominent people in the media who supported Nixon against Douglas, such as William Randolph Hearst and a number of California newspapers.
Back to Hollywood and HUAC! One of the people in the Hollywood Ten was screenwriter Lester Cole, who went to jail for refusing to answer Congress’ questions about whether or not he was ever a member of the Communist Party. And guess whom Cole encountered in jail? J. Parnell Thomas, the former chairman of HUAC, who was there for “taking kickbacks from friends and relatives he had placed on his congressional payroll” (Mitchell on page 111; I write about Thomas in my post here). They taunted each other while Thomas was gathering eggs and cleaning the chicken coop!
I’d like to turn now to the story of Westbrook Pegler, a right-wing journalist. When Pegler wrote that the U.S. should withdraw from the Korean War, stay out of the Far East, and lock up Communists and fellow travelers in the U.S. in concentration camps, some newspapers did not print his column, and the head of a right-wing group, Friends of Democracy, sent a letter to Truman’s Attorney General, asking that Pegler be prosecuted for sedition (I guess because of Pegler’s isolationist views). As far as I can see in the wikipedia article about Pegler, nothing came of that. It is interesting, though, that even right-wing anti-Communists could fall victim to the Red Scare. It reminds me of when devout Christians were accused of witchcraft in The Crucible.